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Alaska Senate takes up second abortion-related bill in two weeks

  • Author: Nathaniel Herz
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published March 3, 2016

JUNEAU — The Alaska Legislature on Thursday began its second battle in two weeks over a constitutionally questionable abortion bill sponsored by Sen. Mike Dunleavy, R-Wasilla.

Senate Bill 191 would bar employees or representatives of "abortion services providers," or affiliates of providers, from presenting or teaching at public schools about any topic — not just abortions or sexual education. And it would allow revocation or suspension of teachers' and doctors' licenses if they break the ban.

The proposed legislation comes after the Senate's 11-to-7 vote last week to pass Senate Bill 89, and the 12-7 vote on reconsideration Monday. That bill blocks abortion services providers from contracting with schools, or offering sexual education there. Planned Parenthood says the measures specifically target them.

SB 191 got its first public airing Thursday with a brief overview from a Dunleavy aide at a packed hearing of the Senate Education Committee, which Dunleavy chairs. Beforehand, teenage Planned Parenthood volunteers and supporters lined the hallway outside the second-floor committee room in what Dunleavy described lightheartedly as a gantlet.

At the hearing, Dunleavy asked a staff member to read a prepared statement in support of the bill, which cited schools that "create a captive audience of children for indoctrination by an outside group." Asked by Sen. Berta Gardner, D-Anchorage, for data about indoctrination, Dunleavy said he had none available.

To a question by a reporter, who asked after the hearing why the bill's restrictions needed to extend to instruction on any topic and not just abortion or sex education, Dunleavy responded: "We want to make sure that there's no bleeding through."

"The concern is, we're losing students out of the public school system because many parents and kids feel that their values are being questioned," he said in a brief interview.

The proposed bill has provoked sharp responses from Planned Parenthood and the group's allies in the Senate's Democratic minority caucus, with Sen. Bill Wielechowski, D-Anchorage, calling the measure a "complete waste of time" as lawmakers try to fix a $3.8 billion state budget deficit.

"I was shocked when I read 191. I thought 89 was bad — I was absolutely stunned by 191," Wielechowski said in a phone interview.

He added that if the bill gets to the Senate floor, he plans to propose dozens of amendments.

"These guys want to waste time with ridiculous bills. I'm going to run 30 to 50 amendments on this bill at least, and any more stupid bills they want to bring to the floor," Wielechowski said.

Asked about those comments, Dunleavy responded: "I look forward to Sen. Wielechowski and others to participate in the discussions in making this a better bill for all Alaskans. I am not averse to such discussions — that's why we hear the bill."

Dunleavy's legislation, Wielechowski said, would be struck down in court.

An opinion from a legislative attorney, requested by Sen. Gardner, notes that SB 191 raises three different constitutional problems, including potential restrictions on freedom of speech and association.

"The penalties under the bill prevent teachers from exercising their First Amendment right to associate with particular groups," the opinion said.

Similar legal concerns were raised about SB 89, which is now up for consideration in the House.

Thursday's Senate hearing drew a protest from a few dozen students from two local high schools — some of whom act as volunteer instructors in a Planned Parenthood peer-led sex ed program.

They gathered in the hallway "to make a statement," said Deanna Hobbs, a 17-year-old senior at Thunder Mountain High School.

"We are teenagers, but we also care about our sexual education, and we want the best that we can get," she said in an interview. "We already have such limited sexual education. I don't think we should be limiting who should come in."

Planned Parenthood says it teaches sex ed to more than 2,000 kids in Juneau, Anchorage, Fairbanks, the Mat-Su and the Kenai Peninsula.

It has defended its presence in Alaska schools by citing the state's problems with sexually transmitted diseases — it has the highest chlamydia rate in the nation, with eight cases for every 1,000 people.

Both pieces of legislation from Dunleavy, Planned Parenthood spokesman Erik Houser wrote in an email, leave the state open to "an expensive legal challenge."

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